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Fatal Fullerton police beating of homeless man sparks outcry

August 2, 2011 |  7:42 am

 

An arrest that ended in the death of a mentally ill homeless man in Fullerton has many residents outraged and city officials looking for answers.

At about 8:30 p.m. on the night of July 5, Fullerton police officers responded to reports that a man was trying to get into cars parked near a bus depot on South Pomona Avenue.

The suspect was described as a homeless man with long hair and no shirt carrying a backpack, police said. When officers arrived at the scene, they found 37-year-old Kelly Thomas, a schizophrenic homeless man who had become a fixture in downtown Fullerton and surrounding cities.

What happened next has Thomas’ family, acquaintances and much of the city outraged.

Police said Thomas tried to run after officers searched his backpack and found items that weren’t his. They called in additional officers when he continued to resist, and the scene continued to escalate as witnesses watched.

One took video of the confrontation, a graphic, two-minute clip that has since circulated the Internet.

In the video (caution: contains strong language), Thomas can be heard screaming over the clicking sounds of the Taser. Bystanders also offer a commentary of the scene unfolding before their eyes.

“They’ve Tased him five times already,” a woman says. “That’s enough!”

“They’re freaking ruthless,” another man says.

Moments later: “I don’t know why they don’t just put cuffs on him and call it a night, instead of hitting him.”

Thomas sustained serious injuries, and was taken by ambulance first to St. Jude Medical Center, then to UCI Medical Center. He died five days later after being removed from life support.

An initial autopsy did not determine a cause of death, and Orange County coroner’s officials are awaiting additional test results.

The incident has caused an outcry in Fullerton. On Saturday, 250 protesters stood outside the Fullerton Police Department, wearing T-shirts bearing Thomas’ name and holding signs condemning police.

Later that evening, a candlelight vigil was held in front of City Hall. City council members said they’ve fielded hundreds of calls and emails about the incident.

“There seems to be a general sense of outrage and fear,” Councilman Bruce Whitaker said.

The Orange County district attorney’s office is conducting an investigation, standard practice for in-custody deaths and officer-related incidents.

About 25 investigators have interviewed about 80 witnesses thus far, officials said, but expect to talk to about 100.

The FBI also has opened an independent investigation, after a request from Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Police Chief Michael Sellers said in a July 28 statement that his department was fully cooperating with investigators and was looking into the matter internally.

“The department believes it is in the best interest of everyone — the police department, Mr. Thomas’ family and the Fullerton community as a whole — to have a thorough and independent investigation conducted by an outside agency,” he said.

Of the six officers involved, one was placed on administrative leave. The others -– whose names were not released -– have been reassigned to nonpatrol duty. Two were injured during the altercation.

At the bus depot where Thomas was beaten, well-wishers have created a memorial, with heart-shaped balloons, sunflowers and candles surrounding a street lamp, bearing a sign that reads, "In loving memory of Kelly Thomas ... in God's loving arms now" and "Shame on the Fullerton Police."

Strangers stop to light candles or leave offerings. No one at the bus station Monday had witnessed the beating but several remembered Thomas.

"He was harmless," said Amanda Hendrie, 22, who remembered he used to go into the Target store where she works. "You could tell that something was wrong, but it wasn't a violent sort of disturbance."

Thomas' mother, Cathy Thomas, recalled him as a bright, loving kid before the onset of schizophrenia in his 20s. After that he struggled, going off and on his medication and on and off the streets.

He would stop by her house in Placentia but wouldn't tell her where he was staying. She believed he had been in Fullerton for five or six months.

"The police officers who patrol there would have known him. They knew Kelly, they knew he had mental problems, and yet they did this to him," she said.

His father, Ron Thomas, a retired Orange County sheriff's deputy, said he doesn't believe Kelly was trying to break into cars. The items in Kelly's backpack that police believed were stolen may have been letters he had picked out of the trash outside a nearby attorney's office, Ron Thomas said.

Kelly's parents said they wanted to see all six of the police officers in jail. They expressed frustration with the city's lack of action.

"They don't know what to do, it's clear, so they're doing nothing," he said.

Both the district attorney’s office and police department have asked anyone with information to contact investigators at (714) 347-8813.

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-- Abby Sewell in Fullerton and Kate Mather in Los Angeles

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